In 1937, 50,000 acres along the Texas Gulf coast became known as the Aransas National Wildlife Refuge. Congress designated that the property serve as a sanctuary for the whooping crane, a critically endangered species. At that time, there were 14 of the whoopers in the wild; today, there are about 150. The cranes move between the Texas Gulf coast and Canada’s northwest territories, coming to Texas in October and returning to Canada in April.
At nearly 5′ in height, whooping cranes are the tallest birds in North America and look graceful as they pick their way through the lagoons near the refuge. When they take off in flight, they look clumsy, like a comic strip bird. Their call sounds like a 6th grade band student’s early attempts at playing the cornet, and they mate for their 20 year life span. Beautiful, weird creatures.
I’ve visited Aransas Wildlife Refuge since the kids were small. It isn’t much more than an hour from my home, an easy drive. The Visitor Center is a great natural history museum for the Texas coast, kid friendly. The walking trails are easy to follow and the kids always saw wild critters. We’ve visited the huge alligator in the pond near the refuge entrance enough to think we recognize her. Or him. The high point of the visit, for me, was to climb the observation tower and spot whooping cranes on the barrier islands across from the tower.
I heard about hunting at the wildlife refuge years ago when a friend’s husband and son went bow hunting there. At that time, the refuge drew hunters’ names in a lottery and hunting spots were greatly prized. This year Bob was looking for a close hunt, and we stumbled onto the Aransas Wildlife Refuge hunting website. Currently, a contractor markets the spots, 100 hunters per week-end, 1 archery and 4 rifles hunting week-ends per year. The cost of $135 for 2 days of hunting in the 35,000 AC designated for hunters wasn’t prohibitive. A plus was that I could go with Bob as an observer at no extra cost.
Bob and his friend Corey bought spots in the 1st week-end of November hunt and spent the Friday before hunt week-end scouting and setting up portable blinds. The refuge permits portable blinds and stands. Hunters select their spot and mark it with colored flagging that’s sold color specific for the week-end. Bob and Corey selected spots far from the refuge, scoffing the hunters who set down close to the hunt area entrance.
Bob called to give a status update since they left early and I planned to drive up after work. (“Bring your boots. It’s kind of brushy where the stand is.”) (I can’t wear tennis shoes? I have to wear boots?”) (“There are rattlesnakes here. And water mocassins.”) I have a pair of Twisted X boots that I bought on sale last year. They are in my short fat foot size and allegedly comfortable. I hadn’t worn them yet, but I own boots. So boots I brought.
We tent camped at Hoppers Landing near Austwell. It’s less than 10 minutes distance from the refuge and you can’t beat the view. That’s good because there are only cold showers and the folks who rent cabins or don’t have facilities in their RV share 1 toilet and a lavatory. We figured that was about 30 men and 1 woman. There was a hot shower for $3, but you had to tromp through the Hoppers Landing bar to get to it.
A norther blew in early Saturday morning. The winds were breezy at 4 a.m. when we got up to make coffee and go to the deer blind. Bob warned me that the deer blind was “a little” distance from the road. (How little?) (“Maybe, 100 or 200 yards.”) Or 300. It was rough going in the daylight, but since it was 5 a.m., it was dark and it felt like I was fighting all the way. There was some kind of clumpy dense grass that covers the terrain. What looked like a good place to step sank 8″ or so which caused me to stumble and fall 8 or 10 times. Each time my hand hit the ground, I thought about the snakes that were probably nesting. (Shine the flashlight and wake them? Or just keep on stumbling along?) I imagined rattles and hisses.
Once we got settled into the blind, we waited for the deer. And waited. Moved the blind 100 yards to higher ground. Waited some more. At noon, we took a break, walking across the field to the road where Corey parked the truck. Halfway there, Corey met us and swapped stories about absentee deer. We passed a hog wallow that was full from recent rains. (“It looks like something’s moving in there.”) Bob took a stick and swished it around in the water. It was deeper than it looked. (“I think it’s a little alligator.”) He poked some more.
Slowly, slowly eyes and a nose emerged. A loud hissing sound came from a not so little alligator’s toothy maw. She moved into a pounce position. I know that because I watched the movie at the visitor center. Corey crouched close to her and took pictures while I remonstrated.
We hunted in the same area that afternoon. By the time Bob and I were walking back to the road Saturday night, the new boots had rubbed blisters on my heels. I made an effort to keep from whining too much; but when Corey didn’t show up and we had to walk down the road for a bit, I whimpered and groaned as much as a 3-year-old past naptime. A couple of feral hogs ambling down the road distracted me. They scattered quickly, more scared of Bob and his rifle than they were feeling ornery.
I declined going with Bob on Sunday morning. It was nice to take a hot shower. What I thought was my smelly self was the red tide washing up on the beach. I drank a pot of coffee and packed up our camping equipment. The guys came back to grab a sandwich, load up, and go back for one last session in the blind. I climbed the observation tower and killed time at the visitor’s center.
Bob told me that he finally saw deer; a group was grazing right next to the check-in point. What he and Corey discovered after talking to several of the venison gatherers is that the deer stay close to the refuge for one big reason. Hunters on permit at the refuge can’t bait the deer they are after. The refuge abuts hunting lease properties where there’s plenty of bait. The deer cross at the points where there’s not too much rough terrain. Like where we placed our blinds. They usually cross the fence at the lease properties, grab a quick snack, and then hop the fence back to the refuge. Successful hunters hunt near the refuge and use tower stands. Lesson learned.
Next time, and I am sure there will be a next time, we will be setting up our stand away from the alligator and crazy grass and ankle twisting terrain. And maybe, we’ll bring home some deer meat.